In his work as a prophet, Elijah has shared God’s message with the people, confronted foreign prophets, run from said prophets in fear for his life, and inspired many composers to write songs about him. Elijah has led a faithful life, but now, it’s time for him to leave the scene.
In his prophetic work, Elijah planted the seeds of trees in whose shade he would not sit, to quote the old African proverb. Elijah understands that he will not eat the fruit that will come from seeds he’s planted. Others will be called to do that.
…which is why he takes the younger prophet, Elisha, under his wing. For a period of time, Elijah mentors Elisha. He teaches his protégé how to read and interpret Scripture and how to read the political and social conditions in which they live. Elisha has observed the prophetic actions Elijah has taken. He’s been soaking it all up….learning, learning, learning…
But now, Elijah knows it’s time for him to leave the scene, which means it’s time to pass the baton. The time has come to anoint Elisha as the new prophet of Israel.
But Elisha isn’t having it. The shift from protégé to prophet is a big one. Doing what someone tells you to do is so much easier than figuring out for yourself what needs to be done, much less sharing wisdom with others. And working with a mentor… Have you had a mentor? It’s such an intimate, sacred relationship, isn’t it? Mentors see things in us we can’t see ourselves. From their wisdom, they teach us. They point out where growth is still needed. They walk alongside us as we grow.
I have heard from many people who considered long-term UCT member Agnes Furey their mentor–and not just UCT folks. Though I never met Agnes, from my conversations with you all and folks engaged in restorative justice work outside UCT, I know that Agnes’ mentoring of those engaged in the work of restorative justice was significant and profound.
I also know how hard it has been for everyone to say goodbye to Agnes. How heartbreaking. The prospect of losing Elijah also is hard for Elisha. As they’re walking along, Elijah keeps trying to fake Elisha out. “You stay here while I run over there for a minute…” he says. But Elijah has done his work too well; he’s taught Elisha how to read and interpret the present circumstances. Elisha knows what’s going to happen… which is why he refuses to leave his mentor’s side. Group after group tells Elisha, “You know Elijah is about to leave us.” Every time, Elisha responds, “Be silent.” (Which I’m guessing is a sanitized version of “Shut up!”) Elisha just doesn’t want to hear about Elijah leaving.
Finally, the two prophets get to the Jordan River. On the bank, Elijah takes his mantle–the symbol of his wisdom and teaching–rolls it up, and strikes the water. The water parts and the two of them cross over on dry ground. By the time they reach the other side, Elijah is retired, and Elisha transitions from protege to prophet.
As their roles reverse, Elijah asks Elisha: “What do you want me to do for you?” To that point, the questions always had gone the other direction. Now, as protégé becomes prophet, it falls on Elisha to assess what’s going on and make a plan for moving forward.
Here’s his plan. He asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha knew that doing what Elijah did was going to require twice as much of whatever Elijah had to do it. Elijah says it’s a hard request, then tells Elisha: “Yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”
This is significant. Elisha will get what he needs to do the work that must be done if–and only if–he sees his teacher leave. If he doesn’t witness the departure, he can always imagine that Elijah is just in the next room. If Elijah is just in the next room, there really isn’t a need for Elisha to claim his own power to do what needs to be done. Elisha needs to see Elijah leave the scene so he can understand completely that the work is now on his shoulders. He might feel inadequate, but now the work rests solely on him, regardless of how he feels.
As gut-wrenching as it must have been to watch his beloved mentor be carried away in the chariot, watching the departure was vital to Elisha’s being able to answer his call to act the world into wellbeing. Elisha grieves, to be sure. When the chariot is finally out of sight, he falls down and tears his clothes, a sign of deep mourning.
Once his mourning is done, though, Elisha picks up his mentor’s mantle. That image—of picking up the mantle—is so clear, so powerful in this story, that it’s become a near-universal symbol of carrying on a mentor’s work.
Last week, in two unrelated conversations, people commented on my level of experience. “You’ve been at this so long…” Once I got past the “are they calling me old?” question in my mind, I was deeply moved by the comments. By the time I went to seminary, I’d only heard one woman preach…and I heard her when I was visiting the seminary to see if I wanted to attend. Though I realize now that I was called to pastoral ministry as a teenager, because my Southern Baptist church couldn’t imagine a girl or woman as a pastor, I couldn’t imagine it for myself.
The process of moving toward ordination was arduous. Knowing who I was–a pastor–and having churches, my entire denomination, tell me that wasn’t who I was…it took its toll. It also kept me focused on the task of declaring who I was and settling into the life I felt called to live. It kept me focused on myself. That’s not a judgment, just the reality of trying to be yourself in a world that wants you to be something else.
Last week, when two different people commented on my longevity in ministry, taking it as a given, I almost broke into song. (I’m bad to do that. 🙂 It marked a vocational shift for me. I no longer have to battle to be myself. Now, folks take who I am as a pastor for granted. Last week, some coil that’s been wound inside me my whole adult life finally uncurled. I no longer have to fight to be a woman in ministry. I’m just a pastor.
So, now what? Now that I am solidly in my skin as a pastor, what’s next? It’s not a long to-do list. Now that I’m solidly in my skin as a pastor, my to-do list is this: be a pastor.
The shift Elisha makes in today’s scripture story is one we’re all called to make, especially, once we’ve done the hard work of becoming ourselves. For many of us, it’s taken us a LONG time to settle into our own skin…whether because of our gender or our sexual orientation or our gender identity or our skin color or our other-mindedness or other-abled-ness… If you’re still in that settling process, keep at it. It’s important that you attend to that process for as long as it takes. It took me for…ev…er…
If you are feeling comfortable in your own skin, though, if your mentors have done their work and you feel strong and happy in who you’ve become, Elisha’s story presents you–it presents all of us–with an invitation. Now that our mentors are gone–or now that the mentoring process is through–will we mentor others? Now that we have been formed and are walking around happy in our own skin, will we reach out to others to mentor them, to help them on their journeys?
I saw a meme on Facebook this morning. It was a picture of Ruth Bader Ginsburg that said: “I didn’t leave you. I passed you the baton. It’s your turn now. Get up and fight!”
I’ve asked Quentin to sing “True Colors.” Like the song we heard last week, “Rise Up,” “True Colors” is an anthem for folks in the LGBTQ community. We’ll have the words on the screen, so feel free to sing along.
Here’s an invitation as you sing it this time. I’m guessing that for many of us, the song has offered lots of healing because we’ve taken the words in as if they are being sung TO us. As you sing this time, the invitation is to hear or sing the words as if you are singing them to someone else who needs to hear them, someone else who is still trying to settle into their own skin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ecaYj14z3M [True Colors.]